Where to now? (by Dr. Mela Sarkar)

I believe in scholarship. I keep the words “scholar” and “scholarship” in a special separate compartment in my head, adjacent to but not quite touching words like “academic” and “university”. Anybody can be a scholar (at least according to this idiosyncratic vision of mine), no matter what else they happen to do, or how they earn their living. Or what class, colour, gender, ethnic origin (etc) they happen to be. It takes a lot of time, and may not be compatible with being highly social (this is probably idiosyncratic again, just because I’m not very social myself), but I truly think that anybody who takes the time to think and read and reflect seriously about things, pretty much anything, can call themself (I need this gender-neutral third-person singular reflexive pronoun!) a scholar.

However, not anybody can be an academic. Most people would agree that if you call yourself an academic, you have some kind of formal relationship to an institution of higher learning. You are a student at some level, undergraduate right up to doctoral student ready to defend. Or a professor at some level. Or one of those in-between categories like postdoctoral fellow or research associate. You belong to a college or university community of other academics. You think about research a lot and what it means to do it, or at least you try to, in the slivers of time left over from teaching-prepping-marking, admin-committees-civic duties, and actually having a life, with partners-families-children. You do research — my fellow BILDer-bloggers have written eloquently and movingly about what this means for them.

But research costs money.

So in addition to All Of The Above, a lot of academics (who may also be scholars) are engaged in a continual quest for funding, notably through government funding bodies such as the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, fondly or unfondly known to most of us as Shirk, I mean, SSHRC. At doctoral level, there is the agonizing process of applying for provincial (FQRSC, in Quebec) or SSHRC doctoral fellowships. At professor level, there is a whole series of highly, and I mean highly, competitive grants. Connection Grants (max: $25K), Insight Development Grants, Insight Grants, Partnership Development Grants, Partnership Grants (max: $2 million), and all sorts of special strategic intiatives at all levels in between. This is public money. Your tax dollars and mine are what go into the kitty. Writing a proposal for any one of these competitions takes weeks, months, sometimes up to a year for a really big PG.

Who decides who the winners are? We do. A motley coterie of faculty-category academics from all over Canada converge on Ottawa at certain times of the year and are fed and housed at taxpayers’ expense for the three days it takes their committees of 8-10 to work through several dozen applications. At the end of the process, the pile is ranked and scores have been attached to each, according to a baroque and complicated process that in fact works much better than you’d imagine. Along with about 300 others, I have just come out of this three-day football huddle in a locked room and am about to head back home from The Nation’s Capital. A lot of what we did of course remains confidential. But that we did it is not. For some years now, committee composition has been public knowledge, before as well as after the adjudications.

Our Insight Grants committee for Education grants, which as always had academics from East to West, anglophone and francophone, small-medium-large institutions (it’s tricky to put these together, as we all have to be bilingual in the official Canadian sense of the term), worked very hard and did a good job. I think we really did sift and select and worry and wrangle the way we had to in order to come out with a best-to-worst ranking. Our committee chair and our program officer were excellent and helped us do our best. What this means, in concrete give-me-da-money terms, is that something more than 20% but considerably less than 35% of the applications we looked at will be funded. That’s a one-in-four-or-five success rate.

The problem is therefore not the process per se. The problem is that it is a process founded not on good scholarship, in that idiosyncratic sense of mine, but on being a good academic. In order to rank high, applicants must have a certain kind of funding track record — success breeds success — and have published the right kind of papers in the right kind of peer-reviewed journals, in addition, of course, to knowing how to put together a stellar application. And, only a certain kind of background enables a person to do and have and be all that. A really good idea from out of left field, dreamed up by by someone with no university affiliation, no track record, no academic publications, has NO chance of being funded. It’s probably not even admissible.

In light of what we have been writing on this blog, that makes me worry. BILD is all about pushing the boundaries of what it means to do research in (applied) (critical) (political) sociolinguistics. We have good ideas from out of left field all the time. Left (in several senses) field is, I think, where we mostly hang out. Our reading and thinking is cutting edge. 30 years of working and playing in this field makes me quite sure of this. But it will therefore be, it is, that much more difficult for us to build the kind of profile that makes us fundable from a SSHRC (read: mainstream) point of view. Disciplines are wedded to paradigms, they are nourished by often-invisible ideologies, it is hard to do, or even to think about, really original research. I love that we are trying. I won’t give up, but I do worry!

4 thoughts on “Where to now? (by Dr. Mela Sarkar)

  1. This is something I’ve talked about a lot with my fellow students – the success breeds success approach to securing funding. I can understand why presentations and publications, along with a really fantastic research proposal, are necessary for me to put together a good application for funding. But why is it relevant whether or not I’ve been funded before!? How do we get a foot in the door?


  2. Hi Mela,

    When I started my PhD, someone told me that this was the last time for a long time that we academics could take big chances and risks, and push boundaries. SSHRC funding for PhD students is competitive, but we’re not tied to the proposals we write as grad students. Once on the tenure-track (if indeed that’s where we go), however, the pressures to get funding are just as high, as is the competition, and as far as I understand it, researchers are closely tied to their proposed research. It is concerning that left field research is less likely to make it to the top 20% of that pile. But, I find it incredibly encouraging that more graduate students are working within critical frameworks and challenging some of those paradigmatic boundaries. And, this brings the discussion back to Michaela’s question about how to get that track record going so that the work gets recognized. Maybe we can bring this topic to one of our meetings. Maybe it’s something we can write about.



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